Abolition and Passing
Antislavery agitation in the mid-nineteenth century brought with it an increase in the depiction of people of black and white parentage. Authors used characters with a mixed race to dramatize the debate over national political identity. George Harris of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) is the son of a black mother and her white master. Harris becomes a strong spokesman in the novel for abolition, arguing that because black and white blood exist equally within him, they must enjoy equality in American social and political life. Frederick Douglass, in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) also argues that the existence of a class of slaves who are black and white destroys any theoretical justification for slavery, and that all individuals must be accorded the right of self-definition.
Given the many people of mixed race, the possibility of passing as white was real. Some racist novelists treated the issue hysterically, but many novels were written exposing how passing undermines any attempt to define people by racist precepts. William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter (1853), the first novel published by an African American, tells the story of a mulatto woman who adopts a white identity, marrying a white man in the North. The House Behind the Cedars (1900) by Charles Waddell Chesnutt, who was himself of mixed race, is...
(The entire section is 435 words.)